Making History: Ai-Jen Poo

by Olivia Sandbothe  |  March 21, 2016

Making History: Ai-Jen Poo Ai-Jen Poo was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2014, which she has plowed into her work for domestic workers. (Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Women’s history is current events for organizer and advocate Ai-Jen Poo, who is drawing attention to the workers who still lack basic rights on the job – home care providers. We celebrate her work during Women’s History Month, this year honoring women who helped build the labor movement.

As the Baby Boomer generation retires, demand is rising for in-home elder care. In fact, caregiving professions are among the fastest-growing in the nation.  But these workers have historically been left behind by labor law. They’re considered “domestic workers” under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and until recently that meant that they were not entitled to basic protections like overtime or sick leave. The average worker in this industry earns less than $10 per hour.

It’s a glaring example of the way that “women’s work” has been devalued over the years. Caring for the sick, the elderly, or people with disabilities has long been seen as a woman’s role, and that perception is still strong in the present day, when 91 percent of home care providers are women. Many are also immigrants. That’s made for an uphill battle for caregivers who demand dignity, respect and a fair wage.

But domestic workers are making progress. Many are now represented by a union — including more than 100,000 who are AFSCME members — and laws are changing for the better at the state and federal level.

Ai-Jen Poo is leading the charge for many of these improvements. She is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a coalition of organizations representing caregivers and the communities they serve. Since 1998, she has organized thousands of domestic workers in New York City and has successfully advocated for legislation like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Poo received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2014, and since then she’s been working to make sure that domestic workers have the necessary policy expertise to advocate for their profession all over the country.

“We need to think about the new reality that we face — some 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 years old each day. And, people are living longer than ever. But, we haven’t yet addressed the issue of who’s going to take care of these people,” Poo told the Washington Post after winning the grant. “We have an opportunity now to create a link across generations.”



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